Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The nurturing of absurdity

There are a wealth of recent examples of arguments and interpretations that, despite being obviously absurd, not only make their way into the popular discourse, but actually become dominant conventional wisdom. Though here at the blog, we've been focused primarily on examples from science, technology, and business, some of the best examples come from mainstream media's political commentary. This isn't to say you can't find as bad or worse in conservative media – – quite the opposite – – but those absurdities are reliably in the service of a partisan agenda. The reasons for institutions like NPR making bullshit the default setting in these cases are more subtle.

The most notable recent example is the Trump base pseudo-paradox. This is actually something of a twofer. It starts with experienced and supposedly savvy analysts expressing amazement over Trump taking some offensive stance and yet holding his base, then the analysts conclude that this spells trouble for the Democrats.

Both parts collapsed under scrutiny. Those offensive policies and statements are (with a few exceptions) popular with core supporters and deeply unpopular with the rest of the country. Trump is in a sense pandering twice to his base here, not only agreeing with them on controversy of issues, but hammering home the point that, by doing so, he is siding with his supporters over everyone else. Paranoia and persecution have long been major components of conservative culture and the rise of conservative media has aggressively and deliberately cultivated those feelings.

Thus, Trump holding on to his base is possibly the most explicable development of the past few years, and it shows no special political genius on his part. Anyone can maintain a grip on supporters by taking their side even when the rest of the country strongly opposes them. The only reason you don't see this done more often is because winning the approval of the 25 to 35% of the country that was going to vote for you anyway while angering and energizing 60 to 70% of the country is that it's a disastrous strategy. Think Goldwater but more extreme.

So how did these points not just persist but become ubiquitous? When you put this together with all the other recent examples of the obviously untrue making its way into the conventional wisdom, the inescapable answer is that plausibility doesn't rank that high. If something complements a safe standard narrative (in this case the Dems in disarray), the fact that it doesn't actually make much sense can be overlooked, particularly when you factor in convergent thinking and the inability of many in the world of commentary to think in terms of appropriate levels of aggregation.

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